P.G. building permits: The death of common sense

Published January 2004 in the Monterey Herald - written by Ron Russell

If laws exist as human guidelines, then they must be flexible enough to bear upon human conditions.

Ever wonder why Pacific Grove's planning department has made more enemies over the years than Saddam's sons?

The answer may lie in Philip Howard's book "The Death of Common Sense: How Law is Suffocating America," which illustrates how pointless laws replace reason and how government is preoccupied with enforcing hairsplitting legalities instead of solving human problems. According to Howard, the actual task of government - meeting the needs of the individual and the community - is displaced by a "religious preoccupation of procedural conformity."

Five years ago, I stopped by the P.G. planning department to obtain a permit to move my front door 6 feet forward on an existing porch. By moving the door, my tiny, L-shaped living room (13 feet by 17 feet) would be rectangular. This would not add any usable living space, but the room would be more visually appealing. Before dismissing me by turning his back and walking away, a clerk curtly told me I could not move the door because it would increase my footage by 18 square feet, an area about the size of a bathtub.

Two years later, upon hearing that the codes had been relaxed, twice I had architects inquire about the permit. Both obtained the same answer.

Three months ago, another rumor surfaced. This time I contacted the mayor for advice, but learned the codes hadn't been relaxed. He kindly suggested I request a variance, which entailed a non-refundable $1,000 fee, one-thirtieth of my gross annual income. This fee in Salinas is $125.

Although my request would impact none of my neighbors, nor degrade the appearance of my house, the planning department remained adamant - my variance request would be denied. So, like most folks without money or power, I acquiesced because fighting for the variance would only, at best, make living in a cubicle slightly less frustrating.

Yet look around the city. Mansions are replacing cottages, clubhouses are expanding at public expense, and the well-heeled are obsequiously accommodated.

Is Pacific Grove steadily becoming a community of absentee owners, a vast, disjointed "communal motel?"This already characterizes most homes on Ocean View Boulevard. How much do such owners contribute to city politics, schools or businesses when they do not "live" here, but instead dwell in leisure houses in Neverland-by-the-Sea?

Simultaneously, the working middle class who must raise families in quaint dollhouses are inclined to capitalize on their equity, cash-out and leave the area, likely selling to those moneyed folks who reside here part-time as a symbol of status. Thus, some planning codes and denials ironically contribute to the erosion of Pacific Grove's residential character.

Do not misunderstand me: Planning codes must exist or every aberrant and dangerous architectural design imaginable will ensue, but following the letter of the law to the extreme is just as illogical as unrestrained permissiveness.

If laws exist as human guidelines, then they must be flexible enough to bear upon human conditions. When clerks assume the posture of judges instead of public employees, perceive their primary duty as the preservation of laws hallowed and rigid, and arrogantly deny reasonable and harmless requests from citizens, you have a system that only Marx and Engles could admire. And when law cannot distinguish between what is reasonable and unreasonable, you do not have blind, unbiased justice, you have myopic bureaucracy.

After living here for 25 years, seeing this "last hometown" under siege by the shortsighted who masquerade as its protectors is quite lamentable.


Coast Property Owners Association, P.O. Box 59, Big Sur, CA 93920
© 2004 by Coast Property Owners Association